This was a real event, with real people – this is how I saw it.
I was simply one of a number of speakers at an excellent landscape symposium on Long Island, and was asked to sit with them and field questions from the audience. I always cringe at such “opportunities” so I try to mind my own business and stay out of trouble.
Most of the questions were straightforward enough, and the session was almost complete when a fellow asked, “What do you think about the increasing use of common names in our industry?”
One the speakers, a Rhododendron guru, stated that he used botanical names exclusively in his retail and wholesale nursery, and the other experts essentially said the same. “Common names were confusing, they didn’t match up in different parts of the country, and as gardeners and landscapers became more competent, they shouldn’t have too much problem speaking or asking for plants botanically.” They actually said this.
As the moderator was about to move on, I couldn’t help myself. I said (nicely), “Wait a minute, you guys are crazy!” “We have fewer customers than ever; the baby boomers can’t be expected to keep funding this industry, but most importantly, we have to make gardening and landscaping simpler.”
I continued to rant - “As professionals, we should know, use and promote the common names to simplify and make the buying experience more user-friendly. To think that my daughter, Heather, is ever going to learn Chaenomeles instead of Quince, Baptisia rather than Indigo, and to think she will ever get her tongue around Calibrachoa is ludicrous; she hasn’t the time or the interest. We should know those names, but we should be using common names. Absolutely. Not as a substitute, but as a way of making Heather feel more comfortable.”
The place buzzed a little, and then the same fellow, obviously somewhat upset with my inappropriate answer, bellowed “So you want to dumb us down even more?”.
I had tried to be unemotional, but the gauntlet was thrown. “Come on now, this is not dumbing down horticulture, it is lifting it up. It makes us more accessible to people like Heather and her generation, making her experience in the retail store that much more comfortable.”. “Baby boomers are looking to simplify, a couple of shrubs is now more in keeping with their lifestyle than a dozen perennials. They will be buying less and we need to attract the Heathers of the world. We won’t do it by being “holier-than-thou”.
I believe we have many parallels with the computer industry. Everybody wants a computer that performs well, but if the people at Computer Doodle expected the people who walked into the store to know the difference between ROM and RAM, what a cache was and how to change the resolution on their screen, well, they’d never make a sale. Instead they talk about speed, reliability and memory, words everyone is familiar with. The computer professionals know their buzz words, but the computer industry long ago realized that if they were to attract new customers, they had to make the buying experience more friendly. So should we.
So when you go to the garden center and want to know about plants, common names are just fine, thank you. Let’s talk about our beautiful baskets of trailing petunias and how beautiful are the fan flowers. Who cares about Calibrachoa or Scaevola?